On the Etymologies of Waste

January 9, 2011

It is worth recalling the etymology of the word ‘waste’ and its relationship to ideas of the divine, the human and the land. We take the word ‘waste’ from vastus, giving it the same Latin root as the word ‘vast’ and meaning a space that is void, immense or enormous. The vast etymology of waste takes in its vacant neighbours, vanus and vaccus, and includes the verb vasto, “to make empty or vacant, to leave unattended or uninhibited, to desert”.[1] Waste is both an a priori emptiness and a thing that has become empty: it is both a pre-exiting desert and a space that was once but is no longer inhabited. It is important to stress the landed nature of this conception of waste as well as its temporal and causal flexibility. The earliest uses of the word invariably denote an enormous and empty sense of a depopulated landscape, “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness.”[2] The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first recorded use of the word ‘waste’ can be found in the Trinity College Homilies, written in the first half of the twelfth century: “Ac se[ò]en hie henen wendend atlai pai lond unwend and bicam waste, and was roted oueral and swo bicam wildernesse.”[3] It appears that the earliest uses of ‘waste’ describe any large or uninhabited space, spaces where humans had either left uninhabited, literarily land that had “bicam waste” or land where humans could not inhabit such as deserts, seascapes or mountain ranges. Through words like ‘devastation’ we see one concept of waste, as destroyed or depleted material, conjoin with its vast etymological root, a space in which humans cannot or can no longer subsist, a space where their relation to the environment overwhelms utilitarian exchange. What is important is the relationship struck between land and the human capacity to cultivate and make that land a productive place in which to dwell. This landed notion of waste exceeds more modern associations with the commodity form, environmental depletion, financial excess or bodily excreta, carrying with it broader intimations of stewardship, scale, shelter and time. Moreover, imbued in the concept of waste that originates from these Latin and Medieval roots is a problem of waste’s relationship to time, a time codified by how, if and when humans might use something and the apparent emptiness, the ‘nothing’ that characterises all that falls beyond human control. These are spaces that gain definition from the productive time that they cannot perform. Put another way, waste is a condition that which does not coincide with the time of human activity.

Our etymological excursions have led to a somewhat Biblical cause. Waste is not only something created by humans but is something primeval, a condition that occurs prior and in distinction to the human, a condition that separates the sacred and the profane. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, waste forms the condition by which humanity can come to be and take ownership of its environment, it is the condition that precedes a “heaven[ly] benediction”. This is something to which King Lear appears all too aware when, in response to Cordelia’s refusal to accept the gift of his land, he expounds the classical maxim ex nihilo nihil fit, “Nothing will come of nothing” (F.1.1.88). In doing so, he recalls how God’s creation and redistribution of the earth’s resources was founded upon a formless void that is described in the Book of Genesis. Lear’s act of division parallels God’s intervention, both are done in distinction to and against a sense of ‘nothingness’. From what kind of ‘something’ does God create? Many Biblical scholars continue to translate the formless, primeval vacuum that precedes God’s division of earth from sea as a state of waste. Genesis 1:2 can and has been translated, “And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”[4] Variants suggest that the earth was “without form or void”[5] or was “formless and empty”[6] but, semantically and etymologically, all conclude the original state of the earth prior to God’s intervention was one dominated by the immense and uninhabitable conception of waste that medieval uses of the word upheld: “a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness.” This variation is born out of the peculiar and rather idiomatic Hebrew expression, ּובהוּ תהו tohû wābohû, which Judaic scripture describes the condition of the earth in this ambiguous and desolate condition. The expression tohû wābohû is of obscure providence, appearing at just two other occasions in Judaic scripture (the others are Jeremiah 4:23 and Isaiah 34:11, both of which effectively return the earth to Gen 1:2). There remains considerable debate about how to interpret and translate tohû wābohû but, following David Tsumura, we may make the following distinction: tohû means a “desert” or “waste land” and bohû meaning “empty” or “uninhabited place”. Comparing the twenty other occasions that tohû appears in the Old Testament, Tsumura concludes that tohû wābohû should be understood as “unproductive and uninhabited”.[7] For Albert Barnes this amounts to “an absence of all that can furnish or people the land” and Keil and Delitzsch gloss that, “The coming earth was at first waste and desolate, a formless, lifeless mass”.[8] The state of the earth prior to God’s intervention has been considered, therefore, to be one of mingled confusion, a noisy and desolate plane of water that can produce nothing.


[1] See Charles Lewis and Charles Short (eds.) A Latin Dictionary: Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary (1879; Oxford: Clarendon, 1945).

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition. 1989.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis (1904; London: Methuen, 1948). Others have “a formless waste”, see E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1983) 3.

[5] Revised Standard Version

[6] New International Version

[7] David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) 31, 42.

[8] Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866) vol. 1, 48.

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One Response to “On the Etymologies of Waste”


  1. Just thank you for the post, it is apreciate reading it


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